COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's football team has cemented its status as the surprise team of the year, a team that quickly has risen from the ashes to earn con-tender's credentials in the South-eastern Conference.
Three weeks ago, a 21-10 upset of then-No. 9 Georgia shocked ev-eryone. Saturday's improbable 23-19 comeback win over No. 25 Mississippi State -- which im-proved South Carolina to 4-0 for the first time since 1988 -- wasn't as shocking, but it delivered a more emphatic message:
If the Gamecocks (4-0, 2-0 SEC) are planning to sneak up on anyone anytime soon, they can forget it.
Further affirmation came Sunday, when the Gamecocks rose to No. 23 in The Associated Press poll, their first Top 25 ranking since the second week of the 1993 season.
Clemson's 31-10 win at Virginia propelled the Tigers from No. 11 to No. 7 in the AP rankings, their highest ranking since 1991. Georgia's 37-0
mauling of New Mexico State wasn't enough to impress voters, as the Bulldogs dropped from No. 24 to No. 25.
South Carolina's ranking, coupled with how rapidly second-year coach Lou Holtz has turned things around in the shadow of a 21-game losing streak, has attracted a deluge of coverage from national media outlets that wish to document what has become the biggest story in college football.
But Holtz never has heaped excessive praise on his teams, and this is no exception. The 63-year-old did his best Sunday to understate the importance of South Carolina's unlikely rise, asserting that the Gamecocks are "struggling" and unworthy of their ranking.
"You say we're this and we're that, and we're not," he said. "We're just not a good football team right now. I'm not putting our football team down. Good Lord knows, I love them and I appreciate their effort and their competitiveness. But you watch us on film, and we've just got to get better."
Less than an hour after his team's stirring triumph was complete, Holtz already was looking to the next challenge: a Saturday date at Alabama (1-3, 1-1) in the Gamecocks' first road trip of the season.
"Now we're going to find out something about ourselves," said Holtz, whose team has outscored its opponents 116-35. "Because playing on the road is a different bear, and I don't know if we're ready to handle that or not."
They might have to handle it without starting quarterback Phil Petty, a junior who suffered a sprained right ankle in the fourth quarter. Holtz said Petty will miss today's practice, and he hasn't yet determined the plan if Petty is unable to play Saturday.
Georgia (2-1, 0-1) heads to Arkansas on Saturday (12:30 p.m., JP) for a game that will say a lot about how far the Bulldogs have come since the loss at South Carolina.
The Razorbacks will be without their top two running backs, Cedric Cobbs (shoulder) and Fred Talley (knee), both of whom suffered injuries in Saturday's 28-21 win over Alabama.
"Watching them play, they're a very aggressive football team," said Bulldogs coach Jim Donnan. "You've got to give them tremendous credit for winning the game and losing two guys like that."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.